Pirates Notes: The Inventive Career of Edinson Volquez

by John Toperzer

At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Edinson Volquez’s chances of succeeding with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He’s had but one good season in the major leagues, back in 2008 when he made the NL All-Star team and finished high in the rookie of the year voting as a member of the Cincinnati Reds.

His 2013 campaign may have proved to the low point of his career. Volquez saw his average fastball velocity drop from 93.6 mph to 92.5 mph. Opposing hitters made contact at a 79.5 percent clip, the highest of Volquez’s nine-year career.

But the funny thing is, even after the San Diego Padres thought so little of him by designating him for assignment in August, the NL West champion Dodgers scooped him up. The Philadelphia Phillies and the Pirates were also among teams pursuing his services.

What makes the 30-year-old righthander so desirable? Why has he started Game 1 of a playoff series, made consecutive Opening Day starts for San Diego, and replaced Chris Capuano on the playoff roster for a Los Angeles team for which he pitched little more than a month?

The guy has more lives than Morris the Cat.

Pure and simple: teams are looking to catch lightning in a bottle. In six National League seasons, the Dominican Republic native never allowed more hits than innings pitched until 2013. Even after giving up 182 hits in 160 IP with the Padres, Volquez rebounded with a strong showing for the Dodgers. He allowed 25 hits in 28 innings for Los Angeles and his 26:8 K:BB ratio gave hope that he might extend his career.

Volquez is a lot like a little league pitcher. In 2013, He either struck batters out or walked them more than 30 percent of the time.

Fans attending his starts might want to set their sun dials. The righty threw more pitches per inning (17.7) than any other major-league starter last summer. Career marks including an 8.42 K/9 and 4.75 BB/9 reflect his high pitch counts.

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Volquez has overslept bullpen sessions, criticized the offense behind him and turned down lucrative multi-year deals, but the interesting thing about him is that every pitching coach thinks they can change him, get him to throw strikes.

Surprisingly, Petco Park wasn’t a match for him. Not even his manager, Bud Black, could coax a better performance out of him. Black is known throughout the baseball industry as one of the better pitching coaches around.

That said, Volquez has always seen his best success in his first season with a new organization. This is where Pirates fans need to make a leap in faith.

Volquez put together his lone all-star season in his first season with Cincinnati. His 2011 numbers with San Diego were decent. When the Padres DFA’d him last summer, he excelled with Los Angeles.

You may or may not question the signing of Volquez, but the length of the deal – one season – was astute.

His personal history reveals he does his best work early on with a new organization. Pittsburgh doesn’t need him for more than a year or perhaps even half a year. The team would likely be happy if he throws well for a two- or three-month stretch.

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Control wasn’t always an issue with Volquez. In June of 2005, he fashioned a 77:12 K:BB ratio in 66.2 innings for High-A Bakersfield.

He advanced from High-A to the major leagues later that summer, compiling a 14.21 ERA and 2.76 WHIP in 12.2 innings.

Volquez spent much of 2006 in Triple-A. Again, he wasn’t good when he reached the majors — 7.29 ERA, 2.07 WHIP in 33 innings.

It’s fair to say he was overmatched. He certainly wasn’t helping himself out with a combined 26:27 K:BB ratio in his first two foray’s into the major leagues.

In early August of 2006, Volquez was recalled from Triple-A to replace injured starter, Kip Wells. Pirates fans will recall the Kip Wells years as a hard-throwing hurler with little command or control — kind of like Volquez. Who can forget the joys of watching a five-inning, 99-pitch outing by Wells in the heat and humidity of a toasty Sunday afternoon game in July — but I bitterly digress.

Texas pitching coach, Mark Connor, said a new slider should help Volquez.

“I just don’t know if he’s ever going to command the curveball enough,” Connor said. “With his arm strength, I think he could have a really nasty slider.”

Herein lies the first tangible evidence of a pitching coach attempting to help Volquez.

The 2007 season rolled around and Volquez was set to start in Triple-A before his Connor decided it would be best to completely start over with Volquez in High-A ball.

“We’re putting him in the best position to succeed,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “He’s still got youth on his side. He’s a good kid and a good talent, and we’re going to take him back to where he dominated the league. He’s been more than receptive about this; he’s enthusiastic about it. He wants to do it. He wants to do what he needs to do to get back to the majors.”

Volquez’s numbers were terrible at Single-A, allowing 20 walks and 27 hits in 35.1 innings. So, of course, the Rangers promoted him to Double-A.

He responded surprisingly well, going 6-0 with a 3.57 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 40.1 innings before landing on the DL with a blister.

Promoted to Triple-A in July, Volquez compiled a 3-5 record, 4.19 ERA, 139:54 K:BB over 124.2 IP, a .196 BAA and a 1.14 WHIP split between three levels before the Rangers recalled him in August.

Remember, we’re still in 2007. Volquez has spent more time traveling than captain James T. Kirk.

Texas pushed back his anticipated start because overslept and missed a side session in Triple-A. He ended up making six starts for the Rangers, registering a 4.50 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 34 innings.

That winter, he was traded with Daniel Herrera to the Cincinnati Reds for another player who’d failed to live up to expectations, Josh Hamilton.

The 2008 season brought a change of scenery and Volquez took advantage of his new environs. He crushed it at spring training.

After the game, manager Dusty Baker raved about Volquez’s stuff. “He (home plate umpire Brian O’Nora) said Volquez showed a very live arm, which makes his changeup better,” Baker said after one Grapefruit League appearance. “He has that dynamite fastball. Those umpires are seeing the ball moving. They’re seeing the hitters’ reaction to it, and a lot of times if I don’t know how a guy is throwing, I’ll go ask the umpire. They’ll tell you.”

Volquez (17-6) put up career bests across the board: Innings pitched (196), ERA (3.21), WHIP (1.327), strikeouts (206), K/BB (2.22) and interestingly, HBP (14). He made the NL All-Star squad and finished fourth in rookie of the year balloting behind Geovany Soto, Joey Votto and Jair Jurrjens.

Even in his breakout season, the righty registered a 4.60 ERA and 1.37 WHIP after the All-Star break.

Volquez’s good times unfortunately came to a screeching halt in 2009. He started only nine games, going 4-2 with a 4.35 ERA and 1.329 WHIP. Injuries plagued his season.

He was placed on the 15-day DL with back spasms in May. After a short return from the disabled list, Volquez felt tingling in his fingers. He went back on the DL with what was thought to be elbow tendinitis. He then rehabbed in June and July, only to undergo Tommy John surgery in early August.

In 2010, major-league baseball suspended Volquez for 50 games after he violated the league’s PED rules. He didn’t miss any game time, because he was on the 60-day DL rehabbing from Tommy John.

Volquez eventually returned, making 12 starts after the All-Star break. The Reds actually sent him back to Triple-A for a short stint in August as he struggled with his control. A strong September earned him Game 1 starting pitching honors. He got lit up by the Phillies (1.2 IP, 4 ER), thus ending his season.

Cincinnati offered him a four-year, $27 million deal in the offseason, similar to the one Johnny Cueto accepted. Volquez had different ideas, however.

“They were offering me a four-year contract, the same as Johnny Cueto, but I felt it wasn’t right for me,” Volquez told the Dominican publication El Caribe. “I talked to the lawyer and the general manager of the team and we all agreed on only one season.”

As of February of 2014, Volquez’s career earnings have totaled less than $11 million.

The righthander missed much of 2011 spring training because of visa issues in the Dominican Republic. Nevertheless, the Reds showed their confidence in him by starting him in the season opener. The Brewers bombed him with back-to-back home runs, starting Volquez’s disturbing trend of difficult first innings.

He allowed four first-inning runs to the Pirates in his second start and walked six batters. By May, Volquez walked 33 batters in 42.1 innings.

The righty then called out his team’s offense in late May, earning a demotion to Triple-A.

“I think everybody has to step up and start getting some runs,” Volquez said. “The last five games, we’ve scored how many runs? Thirteen in five games? (Actually 12). It’s not the way we were playing last year. We’re better than that.”

The Red recalled him in June, only to send him back to Triple-A July.

Volquez finished an injury-shortened season with a 5-7 record, 5.71 ERA and 1.57 WHIP. His peripheral numbers — such as a 20.9% HR/FB — suggest that bad luck as at least partially responsible for his struggles. His velocity was still intact, but his lack of control continues to plague him.

San Diego traded Mat Latos for Volquez and three other players in December of 2011. Padres pitching coach, Darren Balsley, said he would make it a priority for Volquez to throw more strikes.

The Padres made him their Opening Day starter in 2012. Volquez promptly walked four batters in his debut. He recovered nicely, however, and compiled a 3.51 ERA in 22 starts through July. Once again, Volquez showed how he pitches well in his first season with a new organization.

He slumped the rest of the way, fashioning a 6.26 ERA in his final 10 starts and 50.1 innings.

Pitching coach Balsley was encouraged by Volquez’s 2012 campaign.

“If Volkie hadn’t had that blister problem, I think he would have topped 200 innings and probably had a couple more wins,” Balsley said. “I know he walks a lot of hitters, but he’s also one of the toughest pitchers in the league to hit.”

He started Opening Day 2013 for San Diego. After going 11-11 with a 4.14 ERA and 1.45 WHIP at Petco Park, entered the final season of arbitration by signing a one-year, $5.725 million deal.

The Padres designated Volquez for assignment in August, primarily because of his inability to throw strikes. He compiled a 6.01 ERA and 1.67 WHIP in 142.1 frames, walking 69 batters while striking out 116.

The Dodgers snapped him up in the heat of a pennant race and used Volquez out of the bullpen. Volquez responded well with a new organization — as he always has — with a 26:8 K:BB ratio in 28 innings. His 4.18 ERA and 1.18 WHIP show he still has potential.

Amazingly, after making one relief appearance, Los Angeles inserted him into the rotation for Chris Capuano and Volquez kept the spot. In fact, he bumped Capuano off the NLCS roster for the playoffs.

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Injuries

2005
Strained oblique

2006
Triceps tendinitis
Blister

2007
Blister
Blister second time

2008
Sore knee

2009
Back spasms
Elbow tendinitis
Tommy John surgery

2010
Tommy John surgery

2011
Toe
Neck

2012
Blister

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Links

Edinson Volquez Fangraphs page.

Edinson Volquez Baseball Reference page.

Edinson Volquez Yahoo! page.

Edinson Volquez Rotowire page.

Special thanks to Rotowire for the in-season information!

**

Treasure Life!
JT
@PiratesTalk
@JohnToperzer

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